There’s a worn foam mattress that serves as a sitting place on a hill in Palestine. It sits on an old metal frame, in the weeds growing underfoot, under the remains of an animal shelter whose tin roof is supported by iron poles, but whose walls lie like great shards of shrapnel on the ground. From the open-air shelter, if you care to look, you can see across from this hill to the next and the next, the beautiful hills of Palestine. Cast your gaze nearer and you will see a gutted white van, a shell of a vehicle, which serves as a home for the man I met today, the man whose home was demolished years ago here, whose animal shelter’s walls were broken open. The man who stays up here to tend his sheep.
Word has it that he once had over 250 sheep, although none are to be seen now. I hear they are somewhere nearby in a cave, that is, the 50 that remain, along with the three cows. These animals represent the whole livelihood for the man and his family.
Beside us we can see the remains of the home itself, a monument to a time of cruelty. Word is that 17 people lived together on this hill, in the good times, before the army came and the bulldozers rolled the house into a monumental heap of rebar and concrete.
The owner is smiling today, talking with friends who have come to visit. His three sons have also come and are standing beside him in the sun. The old cistern was also destroyed, but there is a new one. Water is life. If there is water and friendship, there can be hope.
I still have tiny thorns embedded in my hand from when I stumbled a week ago in a field not unlike this one, where a man’s fruit groves had been plowed under and I felt it and I stumbled on a stone and braced myself in the falling, and there were thorn bushes where my hand landed. I still have thorns embedded in my hand, like splinters. They were the bush’s line of defense and I do not blame the bush. There was no cruelty in it. The thorns are in me – but they do not hurt.
I look at the man who lives in the shell of the van and know that I should feel something. The story of this man is in my heart now like the thorns in my hand. Yet I stand on the hillside and realize that I don’t feel. It’s one more in a long, long, long line of woes that have become the norm, the miserable norm, and I don’t feel it. I think perhaps it is too big to feel all at once. Perhaps I am protected from it. There is a feeling inside the story that I bear witness to, and I think I will know it later and it will tell me its name and I will know what to do with it. There will come a time. For now, I just tell the story, slowly. Hear the story, a story which is not like the story of the thorn bush that buried its thorns in my hand. This story is a story of cruelty. There is a hill where a man lives in the shell of a van, to care for the sheep somewhere near in a cave, who have no other place, and his kids come up to visit him. And this has come to pass because it was done to him, on purpose. And this thing is being done over and over again, and the world is not feeling it. And it must. It must.
I ponder this now from my desk at the place where I hang my hat these days, and then there is a knock on the door. A boy and girl stand there, my neighbors’ children, smiling at me. It is the last day of school, and they are very happy. “We are going for a walk,” they say, “do you want to come?” It is a kindness, pure and simple, and I welcome it. “That sounds like fun, how long a walk will it be?” The boy smiles. He has on his soccer shoes, bright blue. “Ten Kilometers!”, he says proudly. “Well then,” I reply, with a smile of my own, “I must get on my athletic shoes.”
And so we go together to enjoy the cool air of sunset.